CBR10BINGO: And So It Begins
My favorite book series is Iain M. Banks’s Culture. Each book offers a self-contained story of its own time and place within the vast universe of the Culture. Sure, it’s helpful to have the incremental, accumulated knowledge of the Culture that comes from reading multiple books, but you don’t have to keep track of characters and timelines. I also appreciate series like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Vandermeer’s Southern Reach that are really just one long book broken into smaller volumes. I like the idea of these large-scale, cohesive works that can be consumed all at once.
I’m more hesitant with series like S.A. Chakraborty’s planned Daevabad Trilogy that kicks off with The City of Brass. As is often the case, this first book is not self-contained, instead establishing the foundation for what comes next. As a result, there’s a lot of exposition here. A LOT. I’ll commend Chakraborty in that it didn’t feel like exposition until near the end when I realized the whole book was merely setup. It’s all questions and no answers.
Starting in pre-industrial Cairo, we meet Nahri, a grifter with secret abilities to heal herself and detect illness in others. While running one of her scams, she accidentally summons Dara, a djinn being pursued by ghouls. They escape Cairo, and before long, Dara realizes Nahri might be not only part djinn but also descended from a family of healers previously thought to be extinct. They head to the safest place Dara can think of: Daevabad, the city of brass, for thousands of years the seat of power within the invisible world of the djinn. Once there, the current ruler accepts Nahri’s claim as a healer, giving her a place of honor within the palace and putting her to work. Of course, nothing is what it seems, and everyone has secrets and schemes that threaten the fragile peace within Daevabad and the greater society of the djinn.
Chakraborty’s prose is beautiful and flows really well. This is a compulsively readable book. However, the story itself feels very old-fashioned. It’s all kings and princes and soldiers and palace intrigue, and I mean that literally. This book is mostly about men: the king, his sons, their buddies. I can think of only two female characters that aren’t completely disposable, and one of them is Nahri. I guess I expected better since the author is a woman. There’s also a fair amount of religion, particularly of the Middle Eastern, monotheistic variety, and I found it tiresome and distracting.
However, because this story isn’t self-contained, I feel like I don’t have enough information to have a firm opinion. Maybe those traditional tropes will be turned on their heads; maybe not. I have to say that the ending was spectacular, the last 40 or 50 pages so intense that I couldn’t put the book down, but now I have to wait another year to see where it goes. I know that’s not an issue for other people, but I’m kind of annoyed by how incomplete it feels. That said, the ending was compelling enough that I feel (tentatively) positive about this book and really do want to read the next to find out how Chakraborty plays the long game.